Considering the deep bench of A-list talent involved, Ridley Scott’s new Southwestern noir, The Counselor, is a jaw-dropping misfire. The dialogue is laughably pretentious, the plotting is virtually nonexistent, and the performances are so broad and cartoony that you keep wondering if it’s all some sort of prank.
Reteaming with Ridley Scott after the disappointing Prometheus, Michael Fassbender stars as a smooth, naive lawyer operating in the moral grey zone along the border between Texas and Mexico. It’s a godforsaken land where drugs are cheap and life is cheaper. After years defending crooked clients there, Fassbender’s ”Counselor” finds all of the easy money too tempting to resist. So he sells his soul and saddles up with a ring of flashy bad guys for a big drug-smuggling score. There’s Javier Bardem as Reiner, a spiky haired playboy who looks like he picked his wardrobe from a Siegfried and Roy yard sale; Brad Pitt as Westray, a charismatically mysterious stringy-haired hood who speaks in cryptic riddles; and Cameron Diaz as Malkina, a sex-crazed harpy covered in tattooed spots to match her pet cheetahs. (This is the film’s subtle idea of character development.) For all of her man-eating efforts in the film, Diaz is punished with one of the most wince-inducing scenes in years — a spread-eagle masturbation spectacle performed on the hood of Bardem’s yellow Ferrari that I’d say has to be seen to be believed. But I wouldn’t want to encourage anyone to cough up ten bucks to sit through it.
If the film’s posse of ethically shady villains seems right out of a bad Cormac McCarthy novel, that’s because it more or less is. The Counselor is the celebrated bard of the borderland’s first feature-film screenplay. And as Fassbender’s drug deal goes sour, putting his fiancée (Penélope Cruz) in harm’s way, he’s forced to listen to a lot of poorly-sketched characters wander on screen and deliver stilted metaphorical speeches about greed and the evil that men do. All of this may have seemed fine and dandy on the page. But I suspect that McCarthy is about to find out the hard way that writing novels and writing screenplays are two very different things. In No Country For Old Men, the Coen brothers wisely stripped the author’s doomed tough-guy dialogue and injected it with a stiff dose of harrowing naturalism. But operating on his own here, McCarthy’s unchecked macho arias leave you sitting there slack-jawed, wondering if he has any idea how people talk in real life.
Scott doesn’t do him any favors either. The director surrounds the garishly painted characters in excessive dollops of glitzy opulence, hammer-to-the-skull symbolism, and sex scenes that are as embarrassing as they are unerotic — the film’s paranoid view of women comes off as downright Neanderthal. I suppose the only good thing than can be said of a movie as bad as The Counselor is that its existence is a reminder of just how right Hollywood usually gets it. Big honking bombs as bad as this one are like solar eclipses. Rare and not be looked at directly. D+